Tenchu Zzz . . .

The dull life of the modern-day ninja
By MITCH KRPATA  |  August 7, 2007
1.5 1.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Tenchu Z

What’s cooler than a ninja? They’re silent, deadly killers with a rigid code of honor. They wield primitive but efficient technology like grappling hooks, smoke bombs, and throwing stars. They look great in form-fitting black jumpsuits. It’s no wonder they occupy such an exalted place in pop culture, starring in any number of cartoons, comic strips, and video games.

One of the first games to try to simulate the ninja experience was Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, which was released in 1998 for the Sony PlayStation. Unlike the hack-and-slash approach of games like Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi, Tenchu was all about concealment and the element of surprise. Today, it’s remembered in some quarters as a borderline classic, though the clunky controls and turgid pace always put me off.

Now there’s Tenchu Z, an update on the series for the Xbox 360 that does little to improve on the original product. In fact, though it sports such innovations as cooperative play over Xbox Live, all Tenchu Z really does is highlight what didn’t work about the franchise to begin with. It takes what should be a taut exercise in stealth and turns it into a plodding march that’s about as exciting as waiting in the dentist’s office.

The problem starts with the controls, which are complex and unresponsive. That’s an ugly combination for any game, but in Tenchu Z, where success depends on springing into action with speed and precision, it’s downright deadly. One problem is that the developer opted to map common controls to uncommon buttons. Most games ask you to click the left thumbstick to crouch; here, it’s the right bumper. That’s not a huge deal in itself, but those little things add up.

Then there’s the way your character performs different actions depending on whether your weapon is sheathed or unsheathed. Again, it’s not fatal by itself, but why not simply give the player the option to attack with lethal force by pressing one button and non-lethal force with another? You’ll find yourself performing an action you didn’t anticipate simply because of the placement of your sword.

When you make a mistake in Tenchu, you wind up battling enemies instead of ambushing them for a quick kill. The point of the game is to avoid such encounters, but when you do fall into one, it at least ought to be enjoyable. Not here. The game camera is entirely player-controlled, which is great when you’re skulking around the shadows but useless when you’re fighting somebody. Enemies disappear around corners or behind barriers. The combat itself is a simple button-mashing affair, not fit to lick the boots of Ninja Gaiden.

Worse, for long stretches, the game is far too easy. Enemies follow pre-determined routes that are easy to decipher. If they do accost you, you just escape and wait a few seconds for the alarm level to go down. It can take more than an hour to complete any given map, but you spend most of that time crouched on a rooftop, waiting for your quarry to return to a particular spot. It’s not a tense situation — there’s no chance you’ll be caught. You’re just waiting.

Even when you play Tenchu Z perfectly, it doesn’t deliver any thrills. The kills are repetitive, and the game recycles certain stunts over and over, such as stabbing foes through doors. That sort of thing is interesting only the first time. The same could be said for the entire Tenchu franchise.

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